An early October field trip found eight George Mason University students, many of them studying at the Schar School of Policy and Government, walking through an undersized “secret door” located behind the central counter of the massive and ornate Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
It’s the same tiny door that the actor Nicolas Cage dashed through in a pivotal scene in the 2007 movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets. And, as education reference specialist and the day’s tour guide Darren R. Jones explained, Cage could not have run through the door as he did in the film because there is a small, steep, and twisting staircase immediately on the other side.
Which turned out to be true. Cage would have limped on sprained ankles into the next scene with bumps on his head.
The “secret” door and the rooms behind it were among the often-off-limits sites of a two-hour tour of the world’s largest library, a visit that included stops in several backrooms where some 165 million items are kept on 535-miles-worth of shelving, all of it organized to be found efficiently and used by visitors from around the world.
The behind-the-scenes visit, arranged by Schar School librarian Kim MacVaugh, also included an hour-long clinic in a classroom on how to use the Library’s vast resources for academic research purposes.
“I have always wanted to visit the Library of Congress, but with a busy school and work schedule I was not able to plan it,” said Fatiha Tabibipour, a junior Government and International Politics major at the Schar School. “When I saw the tour on the [Schar School] website I immediately signed up. I said this is my chance to visit the biggest library in the world and learn about its resources.”
“Researchers from all over the world flock to the Library of Congress to study rare primary source materials—their collection is second-to-none,” said MacVaugh. “In particular, their vast repository of foreign-language books and periodicals is a boon for Schar School students and faculty, who need only to hop on the Metro to access this wealth of international scholarship for free.”
While the 130-foot high dome of the Main Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building is an internationally recognized landmark, the lesser known “stacks” were fascinating. The Library is a labyrinth of low-ceiling rooms and tight shelving systems of books on every subject imaginable. Jones said the Library ingests some 6,000 new arrivals a day.
“My favorite parts were visiting the Main Reading Room and seeing books that contained congressional hearings,” said Tabibipour, who is minoring in Middle East Studies.
As for the clinic on how to perform research, she said, “I was familiar with the research database used by the library but [the session] was informative, and I learned about other important resources that can be useful when conducting research on a professional and academic level.
“I am very grateful that the school I attend can provide me and my fellow students with such opportunities.”